William Troost-Ekong: We need to start a conversation about sustainability in football

Nigeria defender, who made what is believed to be the first carbon-neutral international transfer, speaks to The National ahead of Cop28

Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong knows as well as anyone the culture of wastage that is deep-rooted in the game of football.
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In January 2023, the Argentina World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez and his entourage touched down in London to complete a British record transfer to Chelsea. The deal involved a sprawling cast of agents, lawyers and associates, all being ferried around in chauffeur-driven cars and private aircraft. A few days earlier, another landmark transfer had taken place, yet had flown almost entirely under the radar.

The Nigeria international, William Troost-Ekong, moved on loan from Watford to Salernitana in Serie A, but there was no private jet and no A-lister treatment. Instead, there was a fistful of train tickets, boarding passes for a commercial flight from London to Naples, and contact details for an olive farm near Salerno.

Troost-Ekong made what he believes was the world’s first carbon-neutral international football transfer.

Next week, training schedule permitting, he hopes to tell his story at the Cop28 summit in Dubai, via a virtual appearance in a seminar on sustainability in sport.

It's a story that started in the Netherlands, where he was born to a Dutch mother and Nigerian father. A youth career with Fulham and Tottenham gave little clue to the rich and varied path ahead in a senior career that has traversed the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Norway, Turkey, Italy and Greece. Not to mention 64 caps for the Super Eagles, who he hopes to represent at the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

Those experiences have shaped Troost-Ekong’s outlook and piqued an interest in environmental issues; the seed of curiosity planted amid the personal growth of fatherhood – he has three children under five – and fertilised by a nagging sense that things “just don’t add up” when it comes to the disparity between the wealth and influence of football and the industry’s meagre record on sustainability.

A partnership with Sokito, a UK-based start-up looking to produce the world's most eco-friendly football boots, followed and together they hatched the plan for Troost-Ekong’s carbon-neutral transfer.

“It was something I had read about and thought was a good idea,” the 30-year-old defender told The National from the Greek city of Thessaloniki, having just finished training with new club PAOK.

“The opportunity came to go to Italy with Salernitana and I thought this is the perfect moment to try and piece it all together. Initially, I wasn't sure how you could do that with a transfer. There are different calculators out there, but the team at Sokito wanted to be absolutely spot on, so I think they went that bit further.

“I travelled with my brother, and he took the tube and the train [to meet me]. I had two agents in Italy and they also used the train. We tried to make it the most eco-friendly we could in terms of transport. I couldn't do all the stuff because I had three to four suitcases and it was all quite last minute.

“We made a calculation from the days leading up to it, us being there, going for the medical, going to the stadium, to the point where I signed and started training and was integrated into the team.”

That calculation showed the transfer had generated 0.928 tonnes of carbon emissions and it was then a case of deciding how to offset it – an aim achieved through the planting of olive trees with the help of Alberami, a project that enables farmers in southern Italy to gain income from voluntary CO2 offsets and sustainable methods. In monetary terms, the cost of the offset was just 65 Euros.

“I thought it would be great to do something locally in Italy, to try and make it a talking point there as well,” added Troost-Ekong. “We came across Alberami, who were already doing work with the olive trees and farmers. I visited one of the farms and planted a tree, which was just kind of symbolic, and felt I learned a lot and it was another way of sharing the message.

“The aim is to get people talking and I think it’s important to highlight the cost. The contribution was less than I thought it would be, it is very accessible, and the idea is that everyone can do the same.

“I hope it becomes mandatory, that the governing bodies will make it mandatory for clubs to make a contribution to cover for players travelling.”

While he acknowledges that the mass movement of supporters will always be the greatest challenge in mitigating football’s impact on the environment, Troost-Ekong knows as well as anyone the culture of wastage that is deep-rooted in the game, where the rampant consumption of resources will always be justified if a team is winning matches.

“Clubs can be quite lazy in organising things on a very one-off use basis,” he explained. “That’s everything from water bottles to the amount of staff travelling to games, the kit that we wear, endless things that are very wasteful, and just because all that matters is the result and performance on the Saturday.

“The governing bodies, the people really in charge, from the leagues to the Champions League, to Uefa and Fifa … they have to create and enforce policies and set new rules because I think that's the only way to make a big change.”

Although he remains a rarity in the results-obsessed ultra-capitalist world of professional football, Troost-Ekong is not the only player to highlight environmental concerns. Juan Mata’s work with Common Goal has veered into this territory, while Sheffield United midfielder Tom Davies has launched a scheme to create furniture from the chopsticks discarded by the UK’s restaurant trade.

At Sokito, he is joined by around 25 other players “from all levels and also the women’s game” who have invested in a company that wants to create eco-friendly boots. Founder Jake Hardy started the brand after learning that 12.5 million boots head to landfill annually.

As well as Troost-Ekong, they count Borussia Dortmund striker Felix Nmecha, former Manchester United and Everton midfielder Tom Cleverley, and Norway international Morten Thorsby among their backers.

“I wanted to broaden my world outside of the white lines and the biggest thing was getting in touch with Sokito,” added Troost-Ekong. “I was always interested in environmental companies and this was close to home for me with the football aspect.

“The more I spoke to them, it really hit home how far behind we are in the football world, but especially in relation to how prominent we are as players and the game is in general. Those two things didn't add up.

“I wanted to be part of a collective that had the same ideas and was forward thinking. Sokito was great for that because Jake, the founder, was open-minded and wanted to hear our side of the story.

“Most exciting for me, and I really believe in the idea of creating a sustainable football boot, first and foremost, and potentially other sustainable products, but also influencing policy that can be implemented in football.

“None of us are necessarily experts but we are all hungry to make a change and be forward thinking and leave some sort of legacy in football, so that when my kids are older, hopefully they will choose a pair of Sokito boots and understand the reasons why.”

None of us are necessarily experts but we are all hungry to make a change and be forward thinking and leave some sort of legacy in football
William Troost-Ekong

It’s a common theme with Troost-Ekong that he isn’t looking for praise, nor has he got all the answers, he just wants to help start a conversation. At Cop28 this week, that conversation will begin in earnest, and he is eager to play his part.

“[Cop28] is something new for me that I have been learning about in recent weeks,” he added. “It all depends on my training schedule, but I am hoping to make a virtual appearance to tell my story with David [Garrido] from Sky Sports who will be attending. He is very active in this space and asked me if I would join and give a small briefing about what got me involved and my perspective.”

Now into his 30s, the defender readily admits that age and experience have transformed that perspective. He now hopes that more and more players will join him in calling for meaningful change.

“I have got a young family with three kids under five, and the last five years have changed my whole outlook on the world, what I was doing, and the future,” he said.

“I became less selfish, which you can be in the football world when you are so focused on performance and always, 'what's next?'. I thought, ‘how can I be a catalyst, how can I affect the environment around me?’.

“I felt a responsibility to try and use my situation to create a talking point. I'm not trying to pat myself on the back, it's about getting people speaking about it, especially other football players. Everyone has their own platform and if we can combine that, then perhaps we can make a real change."

Updated: December 01, 2023, 5:30 PM